An untidy private life, then a turn to stability
Senator Edward M. Kennedy attended a 25th-anniversary celebration at the John F. Kennedy School of Government knowing he had a huge problem. A recent Gallup poll gave him a 22 percent national approval rating, shockingly low for a legislator of his stature. Voters regarded him with personal distaste, and most hoped he would lose his next election.
Kennedy had long been scheduled to deliver the keynote speech at the October 25, 1991, commemoration, at which he was expected to pay tribute to an institution he had helped build and a career, public service, his brothers Jack and Bobby had ennobled. Instead, a few days earlier the senator advised school officials that he had prepared a different speech, more personal in nature.
Kennedy had labored over the speech as friends and aides watched his public image take a pummeling. Spiced by published reports of heavy drinking and sexual escapades, his personal life had become punch-line fodder for late-night TV shows. At odds with the prevailing political winds, he was now perceived to have lost control of his own appetites as well.
The poll followed Senate hearings on Clarence Thomas's nomination to the US Supreme Court, a low moment for Kennedy, who had been expected to lead the fight against the conservative African-American jurist yet played only a secondary role after sexual harassment became the hearings' main focus. Potentially more damaging to his political future was an upcoming trial in Palm Beach, Fla., where his nephew was accused of raping a woman at the family's estate. While not directly implicated, the senator was a key witness in a tawdry case that made headlines around the world.
Not surprisingly, many thought the senator would announce that he wasn't running for reelection in 1994, that it was time to get his personal house in order. In fact, Kennedy was already gearing up for the toughest race of his Senate career. In many ways, this speech was the kickoff.
Media guru Robert Shrum helped Kennedy draft the speech. Accompanying him to Massachusetts was Victoria Reggie, a young Washington lawyer whom the senator had been dating for several months. The public knew virtually nothing about Reggie. Kennedy asked that she be seated close to the podium — close enough, as it turned out, that the press became suspicious.
While speaking, he betrayed little emotion.
"I am painfully aware that the criticism directed at me in recent months involves far more than disagreements with my positions," Kennedy said, "or the usual criticism from the far right. It also involves the disappointment of friends and many others who rely on me to fight the good fight.
"To them I say, I recognize my own shortcomings — the faults in the conduct of my private life. I realize that I alone am responsible for them, and I am the one who must confront them."
He alluded to the Thomas hearings. "Some of the anger of recent days reflects the pain of a new idea still being born," Kennedy said. "The idea of a society where sex discrimination is ended and sexual harassment is unacceptable." Unlike his brothers, he continued somberly, "I have been given length of years and time. And as I approach my 60th birthday, I am determined to give all that I have to advance the causes for which I have stood for almost a quarter of a century."
He took no questions afterward.
Reaction was, to put it charitably, mixed. In The New York Times, Alessandra Stanley called it a first step "to repair the damage and restore, if not his personal reputation, then his political standing as the voice of American liberalism." The Boston Globe's Mike Barnicle was more skeptical, questioning whether the speech marked a true turning point, as Kennedy's friends insisted. The senator's so-called friends "may not be the wisest counsel available," Barnicle quipped.
Nobody singled out the "friend" whose counsel now meant more to Kennedy than anyone's.
It was not just his yo-yoing weight and blotchy complexion that raised questions about how he lived his life. Kennedy possessed movie-star wealth and celebrity. A bachelor since his divorce in 1982, he was also a man of his generation, embracing the swinging Playboy ethos of the 1960s as ardently as he did the New Frontier spirit.
Since Chappaquiddick, Kennedy had been largely able to keep his public and private lives separate. More and more, though, his worst excesses were spilling into public view.
As far back as 1979, such reputable sources as Time magazine had been writing about his extramarital adventures. "The mere mention of Edward Kennedy's social life is enough to make an editor's head throb," one story began, concluding with an anecdote about a D.C. dinner party where "14 talented and interesting men and women talked of nothing but (his) sexual activities."
Other media entities picked up the thread, adding tales of Kennedy's binge drinking. Rarely did they suggest alcohol was impairing his job performance. If anything, the opposite seemed true: that he was demonstrating greater command of his Senate duties than ever, even as his presidential ambitions waned. Yet as those dreams faded, along with his patched-together marriage, Kennedy's sense of discretion seemingly vanished, too.
"Ted Kennedy always baffled me," says former Time correspondent Lance Morrow. "He was so astonishingly productive as a senator, yet his private life was extremely messy. When it came to Kennedy's character, you'd feel whipsawed judging it."
Whether Kennedy was an alcoholic or not was something Morrow, for one, never resolved. The senator denied it in interviews such as the one he gave the "Today" show in 1992, when he said "absolutely not" after being asked whether he had a drinking problem.
His denial did little to quell suspicions. In a later interview on "60 Minutes," Kennedy was again pressed about his drinking. "I went through a lot of difficult times over a period in my life where [drinking] may have been somewhat of a factor or force," he acknowledged uncomfortably. "I never felt that myself." Others did, he admitted.
Biting comments captured Kennedy's growing image problem. At the 1988 Democratic Convention, he delivered a rousing "Where was George?" refrain in attacking GOP presidential nominee George H.W. Bush. "I'll tell Teddy Kennedy where George is," retorted Republican congressman Harold Rogers at a post-convention rally in Kentucky. "He's home sober with his wife."
A year later, Kennedy was stalked by paparazzi during a European vacation. One snapped the senator having sexual intercourse in a motorboat. After the National Enquirer ran photos of the tryst, Alabama senator Howell Heflin joked he was glad to see Kennedy had "changed his position on offshore drilling."
If alarmed about Kennedy's behavior, friends and aides seem to have taken few steps to curb it. Many downplay its excesses to this day. Whenever he left on vacation, "I'd say, 'Remember two words: telephoto lenses!' " recalls former press aide Melody Miller, adding, "He was a bachelor, though, and he was entitled to a dating life."
Edmund Reggie, Kennedy's friend and future father-in-law, bought a home on Nantucket in 1982. "Ted said, 'Why didn't you tell me?' " Reggie recalls. " 'I'd have found you a place near us [on Cape Cod].' But that was during Teddy's party days, and I knew I couldn't go a whole summer with that."
Kennedy would bring girlfriends to Nantucket, says Reggie, but never seemed overly serious about the relationships, though many of the women did.
Shrum, another old friend, asserts he was unconcerned about Kennedy's judgment — or health — during his second bachelorhood. "My experience was that these stories were vastly exaggerated," contends Shrum, pointing to the heavy workload Kennedy was shouldering at the time.
Exaggerated or not, the worst blow to his image came in 1990 in a long profile in GQ magazine written by Michael Kelly. Titled "Ted Kennedy On The Rocks," it portrayed the senator as "an aging Irish boyo clutching a bottle and diddling a blonde."
In 1985, according to Kelly, Kennedy, and his close friend Chris Dodd, the Connecticut senator, made crude advances on a waitress after a boozy dinner at La Brasserie, a posh Washington restaurant. Two years later, Kennedy was caught having sex with a congressional lobbyist on the floor of the same restaurant. He "seems to be getting worse as he gets older," Kelly wrote. "I wonder whether Kennedy is really enjoying this anymore."
Many others did, too, especially following what happened in 1991 in South Florida.
In 1983, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was arrested for heroin possession. A year later, another of RFK's sons, David, died of a drug overdose. Ted Kennedy's son, Patrick, went into rehab in 1986, followed, in 1991, by his brother Ted Jr. Christopher Kennedy Lawford waged his own battle with addiction, recalling in a memoir how he and his uncle, both besotted, nearly came to blows during an argument in 1982.
"Teddy had moved from the mythic to the human," wrote Lawford, a judgment that hovered like a storm cloud over Easter Weekend 1991.
Kennedy had invited relatives and friends to the family's Palm Beach estate for the holiday weekend. Bought by Joseph Kennedy in 1933, the six-bedroom house had fallen into a state of disrepair. Although it still loomed large in family lore, to locals it was mostly known as a Kennedy party house.
Guests that Easter included William Barry, who had served as Bobby's bodyguard; Patrick Kennedy; and Jean Kennedy Smith and her son William, a Georgetown University medical student. According to police reports and trial testimony, a Friday dinner ended with the senator sipping Scotch and reminiscing about Steve Smith. Around 11:30, he asked Patrick and Willy Smith to go out for a drink. The three drove to Au Bar, a hip nightclub known as a pickup spot for older men seeking younger women. It was not the first time a group of Kennedy men had visited Au Bar in the wee hours.
At the club they met several locals, among them Patricia Bowman, a 29-year old single mother, and Michelle Cassone, a Palm Beach waitress. Both women made their way back to the estate around 3:30 a.m. Cassone said she and Patrick were "cuddling" in a bedroom when the senator walked in wearing only a nightshirt. Disturbed by his appearance, Cassone left the house.
Bowman and Smith walked to the beach. According to Bowman, Smith then forced himself upon her sexually. Back inside the house, he denied raping her and allegedly told Bowman that no one would believe her, anyway.
Police officers did not visit the house until Sunday, later saying they were led to believe neither the senator nor Smith was around. This was not true. What Kennedy could not avoid was the media firestorm around a juicy tale involving booze, sex, the police blotter, and America's foremost political family.
The Kennedys launched their own investigation into Bowman. "We knew that was the way they were going to play the game," says Ellen Roberts, a prosecutor on the case. "Patty certainly was not a bad person. But she did have a past."
Major news organizations, including The New York Times, published Bowman's name, igniting further controversy.
The trial was televised nationwide. Until O.J. Simpson's, it was the most widely watched trial in American history. The prosecution called Kennedy as an adverse witness, believing it could question him more aggressively than if Kennedy were summoned by the defense. But the strategy backfired badly, according to lead defense attorney Roy Black. "They grossly underestimated Ted Kennedy's charisma," says Black. "As soon as he walked into that courtroom, you could tell this was going to be a disaster for the prosecution."
Kennedy took the stand on Dec. 6, looking relaxed and confident.
No, said Kennedy, he did not hear any screams that night. Yes, he regretted not having gone for "a long walk on the beach" rather than going out drinking. Only when Bill Barry and Steve Smith were mentioned did Kennedy become visibly emotional. Smith, he said in a husky voice, "was very special to me."
Black sensed the ballgame was over. "Suddenly it wasn't the Kennedys out carousing that the jury saw," he recalls, "but a sense of melancholy hanging over them."
Willy Smith was acquitted five days later. In 1995, the Kennedys sold their Florida estate to a Manhattan bank executive.
Picked to replace retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall, a civil-rights hero, Thomas had served as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before becoming a D.C. Court of Appeals judge less than two years earlier. His judicial temperament was jarringly at odds with Marshall's, however, and although Thomas had issued few written opinions that could be picked apart, Kennedy saw his nomination as a ploy to fill the court's "black seat" with a young jurist who could tilt the court rightward for decades.
Kennedy's frustration was evident during the hearings in September, when Thomas asserted he had never discussed Roe v. Wade with colleagues. Still, without strong opposition from African-American leaders, Thomas appeared to be headed for confirmation. Then Anita Hill surfaced.
In a few tumultuous days, the focus shifted from judicial philosophy to personal conduct and veracity. And that almost guaranteed Kennedy's name would be dragged into the same awkward conversation.
Like Thomas, Hill was an African-American and Yale Law School graduate. Having served as Thomas's assistant at both the Department of Education and EEOC, she told investigators that Thomas had made sexually charged remarks to her on several occasions. Hearings were reopened before a Senate floor vote on Thomas could be taken.
Hill assumed others had come forward with similar stories. They did not, though, and on Oct. 11, she was grilled by committee members while millions watched her televised testimony. Hill said Thomas had described XXX-rated movies he had watched and bragged about his own sexual exploits. Thomas angrily challenged Hill's account, calling the hearings "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks."
Kennedy said little while Republicans Arlen Specter and Orrin Hatch went after Hill. At times, Kennedy appeared embarrassed by her graphic testimony. Only on day three did he protest the treatment of Hill.
"The issue isn't about discrimination and racism," Kennedy said. "It is about sexual harassment." He went on, "Are we an old boys' club, insensitive at best — and perhaps something worse? Will we strain to concoct any excuse? To impose any burden? To tolerate any insubstantial attack on a woman in order to rationalize a vote for this nomination?"
After Thomas was confirmed, by a 52-48 vote, Kennedy was assailed for having said too little, too late.
"It was obvious he'd been defanged," says Faye Wattleton, the former Planned Parenthood director. "His personal life mitigated the kind of blazing attack he'd become known for." Looking back, Hill believes a more spirited defense by Kennedy might have hurt more than helped.
"Because of the situation he was in, I could see people possibly discrediting both of us," reflects Hill, now a Brandeis University professor. More significant to Hill was the disconnect between what lawmakers such as Kennedy stood for publicly and their private conduct.
Committee members on both sides, she says, "underestimated the political impact of the [sexual harassment] issue. I don't think they understood either that on a personal level, the harassment they saw every day amounted to an inequality problem."
If there's one lesson to be drawn, she adds, it's that the fight for equality must be internalized in people's day-to-day lives. In that sense, she says, Kennedy was "no different from anyone else."
The Reggies were old, cherished friends who had supported Kennedy during bad times and good. A retired Louisiana judge and banker, Edmund had Kennedy ties dating to 1956, when he had marshaled Louisiana Democrats to support Jack's vice-presidential bid. He had gone on to manage presidential campaigns in '60 (for Jack), '68 (Bobby), and '80 (Ted) in Louisiana. Doris was a feisty party chairwoman who, resisting a push to have Jimmy Carter nominated unanimously, had cast the only Louisiana floor vote for Ted Kennedy at the '80 Democratic Convention.
In a political world where alliances ebbed and flowed, the Kennedys had no more loyal allies than the Reggies of Crowley, La.
If the bond between the two families was built on politics, though, it had grown over the years into something deeper. The Reggies were Lebanese-Americans with Deep South roots. The Kennedys were Irish-Catholic Northeasterners. Their superficial differences notwithstanding, the Reggies and their six children had more than a little Kennedy in them. Edmund was an unabashed liberal from the heart of Dixie, an immigrants' son living the American Dream. "Last one in the pool is a Republican!" the judge was known to bellow at his kids. He and the senator — gregarious men with robust senses of humor — loved each other's company.
After Bobby died, says Edmund Reggie, "I considered Ted my best friend."
The party took place at the Washington home of Vicki Reggie, 37, the couple's second-oldest child. Two decades younger than Kennedy, she came from a different generation, a different place in life. Although she had interned one summer in Kennedy's Washington office, the two barely knew each other, having shared only a brief conversation and photo-op. After law school, Reggie had married telecommunications lawyer Greg Raclin, moved to D.C. to practice banking and bankruptcy law, and started a family.
Divorced in 1990, Vicki Reggie was no fixture on the Beltway social circuit. Juggling single motherhood and a demanding career precluded having much of a dating life. She had also been named a partner at her firm, combining what colleagues say was an ability to master complex financial transactions with a high degree of emotional intelligence.
"Vicki was a real star," says Steven Engelberg, who ran the law office where Reggie worked. "Not only was she a great lawyer, she had tremendous political skills and a great sense of humor."
Kennedy quickly realized many of the qualities that made her an outstanding lawyer — sharp elbows combined with an even sharper wit — when he rang the doorbell for the anniversary party. "What's the matter," she said, smiling at the senator, "you couldn't get a date?" He followed her into the kitchen while she made dinner and asked her out a few days later. More social than romantic at first, their meetings gradually deepened into a mutual affection that took both of them by surprise.
What made Vicki different from the scores of other "dates" Kennedy had pursued? She was youthful and attractive: 5-feet-8 with hazel eyes and a sophisticated air. Intelligent, politically savvy, a lover of opera and pro football, an accomplished cook. More significantly, perhaps, she was raising two children, aged 5 and 8, who were central to her life. For all his middle-aged roistering, Kennedy loved children and never seemed happier than when surrounded by them.
"His life was going in a very different direction when they met, then it all came together afterward," says Heather Campion, a longtime Kennedy friend. "Vicki made Ted Kennedy much more accessible to us than he'd been before. None of us had ever seen or known him that way, as a family man, a romantic man."
Unlike Joan and other wives of Kennedy men, Vicki shared his political interests, enabling her to serve as partner — and troubleshooter — in all aspects of his life
After they had been dating for a few weeks, the senator was stuck on Capitol Hill and could not make it to her house for dinner, where he would often help with the children's homework and read them bedtime stories. At that moment, she later said, "I started to realize more and more that this man was very important in my life."
To Pamela Covington, a close friend of Reggie's, the affection between Ted and Vicki was "obvious right away." Well aware of the senator's past reputation, Covington says, she was unconcerned that Vicki would go the way of other Kennedy girlfriends. "For all her sense of humor, Vicki can take care of herself," says Covington. "I knew that whatever decision she made would be the right decision."
Edmund Reggie, who had seen plenty of what he calls Kennedy's "wild side," was similarly unconcerned. "There was no romance before Vicki, none," he asserts. "I knew how strong his religious faith was. And I knew in the end that was going to prevail."
After they had married, Vicki was asked whether Kennedy's reputation for womanizing had given her pause.
"I know him," she said. "I know the tremendous respect he has for me, and for his daughters, and for his mother. I think that says it all."
Edmund and Doris Reggie were on Nantucket that December when the senator sailed over to ask their permission for him to marry their daughter. They happily said yes. In January, the senator formally proposed at a performance of "La Boheme," Vicki's favorite opera. They married in a civil ceremony that July at Kennedy's house in Virginia. The news stunned many who had taken Kennedy at his word that he would never marry again, raising suspicions that he was only doing so for political reasons.
"Let me put it this way," says Edmund Reggie. "We all know people who fall in love, marry, and a few years later become two different people. After 16 years of marriage, Ted and Vicki are closer and more romantic than they were after five years. It's impressive."
The summer of 1994 was winding down when David Burke asked whether he could help with the senator's reelection campaign. To Burke, an old Kennedy hand who had run CBS News, it was unimaginable the senator would have trouble winning in Massachusetts. Since his first Senate race, Kennedy had captured at least 60 percent of the vote. He had raised $3.6 million for this campaign and had steered hundreds of millions of federal dollars toward the Bay State.
It was a great record, Burke thought. Unfortunately, the poll numbers and news columns told a different story.
Kennedy's early 20-point lead had shrunk to practically zero. The 25th anniversary of Chappaquiddick had been widely noted. Joan Kennedy was seeking a new divorce settlement. Old demons were proving hard to escape.
Moreover, Kennedy, 62, had never faced as well funded and telegenic an opponent as 47-year-old businessman Mitt Romney, a wealthy, Harvard-educated venture capitalist. Now, with Republicans across the country poised to blow away the Democrats, Kennedy particularly resented Romney's implying that the senator's time had passed. Recalls one campaign staffer, "He was offended that someone like that could come along and take his Senate seat by buying it."
Kennedy asked Burke to ride around the state in his campaign car. "What he really needed," Burke recalls, "was an older hand like me to talk to."
In fact, a platoon of old hands was being summoned back to shore up the campaign. Bob Shrum was aboard, writing speeches and advising on media strategy. John Sasso and Paul Kirk had enlisted, too. Tom Kiley and Jack Corrigan were running polling and research, Rick Gureghian the press office. Ranny Cooper arrived shortly after Burke. Michael Kennedy, the senator's nephew, held the campaign manager's title. Charles Baker beefed up field operations that had languished since Kennedy's ’88 race. Joined by Vicki and Edmund Reggie, all were veterans of presidential-level campaigns.
Money was a major concern. Romney had pledged to spend as much as $8 million on the race. Kennedy's staff had drawn up two budgets, one if they held a comfortable lead, the other if the race was close. Plan B was now operative. With expenditures eventually topping $10 million, the plan provided for a series of negative ads targeting his opponent, a tactic Kennedy had never used before. The senator took out a second mortgage on his McLean mansion to help pay the bills.
Romney's strategy: sell himself as a job-creating executive and Washington outsider, a family-values Mormon with moderate views on social issues such as gay rights and abortion. Kennedy, by contrast, was old, out of touch, soft on crime, and beholden to special interests. Only the senator's personal life was off-limits, Romney told his staff.
"People in Massachusetts knew that stuff already," recalls campaign aide Charles Manning. "And the national audience didn't vote here anyway."
Kennedy's challenge? Reintroduce himself to voters and grass-roots party organizers, reenergize his core constituencies such as organized labor, and reeducate himself on a state economy in rapid transition. That, and teach Romney a lesson in hardball politics, if necessary.
"He may have been right out of central casting, but Romney had a glass jaw," says Burke.
A Sept. 18 staff meeting set the tone. With Kiley's latest poll showing Kennedy a point behind, the mood was one of "looking into the abyss," as several attendees put it. Shrum, backed by Vicki, recommended going harder after Romney. Staffers had learned that Bain Capital, Romney's firm, had bought an Indiana paper plant, SCM, which had then laid off workers, precipitating a bitter strike. An aide was dispatched to interview disgruntled employees. Ads built around those interviews sharply undercut Romney's image as a job-creating chief executive.
"I would like to say to Mitt Romney: If you think you'd make such a good senator, come out here to Marion, Indiana, and see what your company has done to these people," challenged one out-of-work packer. When a "truth squad" of six striking workers journeyed east to confront Romney, he refused to meet with them for three days, keeping the story unnecessarily alive. Kennedy took full advantage, pressing his case with blue-collar voters across the state.
"Labor hated Romney, yes. But they also loved Ted," notes Baker. "I remember the AFL-CIO national political director saying, 'Look, just tell me what you need, and we'll do it.' "
The race shifted into high gear. Romney ran ads highlighting his all-American family. Kennedy touted all he had done for Massachusetts, his arm draped affectionately around Vicki.
A large and noisy crowd filled Faneuil Hall for their first debate. Three million Massachusetts voters tuned in as Kennedy walked onstage to a thunderous ovation.
Heavy on his feet but brimming with confidence, he hit Romney hard on abortion rights ("You're not prochoice, but multiple choice") and healthcare. When Romney went after Kennedy for attacking his business record, Kennedy delivered a line he had rehearsed with Shrum about Romney's questioning of a Kennedy family business deal. "Mr. Romney," he said, "the Kennedys are not in public service to make money. We have paid too high a price."
The crowd, and most pundits, judged Kennedy the clear winner. Massachusetts voters concurred, reelecting the senator by an 18-point margin in a year when the Democrats lost eight Senate seats to the GOP.
Savoring the victory with an ebullient Vicki by his side, Ted Kennedy had faced his harshest critics, his most formidable opponent, and a host of old demons — and prevailed.
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.